Have a comfortable job?

 

Imagine for a minute that you didn’t, but, instead, work for minimum wage to support your family.  You may have had a place to live once, but maybe a child got sick, you couldn’t get to work for a few weeks and were let go. After you missed a number of paychecks, you couldn’t pay for rent and utilities and were evicted. You get back on your feet for a while, then the cycle repeats.

 

Welcome to serial homelessness. Now you will need the help of a number of agencies to break free of it.

 

In RTP and in Sunnyvale, hundreds of underemployed women who may also be homeless have walked in the doors at one such agency, Dress for Success, and have come face-to-face with NetApp volunteers.  An international non-profit, Dress for Success aims to equip women in need with a network of support, professional attire for job interviews and the career development tools “to help them thrive in work and life.”

 

NetApp RTP volunteers at the Dress for Success Triangle boutique

Dress for Success volunteers have a number of different roles.  They may collect donated business attire, stock the agency’s boutiques (located throughout the U.S. and in eight other countries), or help clients visiting a store to select a free outfit that they can wear to job interviews.  They may give career presentations, inspirational talks, LinkedIn workshops or conduct speed mentoring with the agency’s many clients.  Since a critical part of finding work is mastering the art of interviewing, the agency arranges for “mock interviews” with both female and male volunteers from local companies to help clients prepare for the real thing. A number of the images in this blog not otherwise captioned show mock interview-like events evocative of those at NetApp RTP and were provided by Dress for Success Triangle in North Carolina.

 

Meghan Risley, Dress for Success Triangle’s program director, has no doubt that the interview drills with NetApp volunteers play a key role in guiding clients into a more promising future.

 

“Our clients walk out our door with tools, resumes and suits, but it’s the one-to-one mentoring they get from our coaches and from the mock interviews that often makes the difference in whether or not they get a job.”

 

During the mock interview process, as the interviewer and interviewee get to know each other, NetApp volunteers find that, in the end, both parties give and receive—and that the magic of learning and discovery happens on each side of the table.

How it works

Since 2013, several mornings a year, volunteers at NetApp RTP welcome women enrolled in the “Going Places Network,” a 10-week job acquisition program offered through Dress for Success. After networking over coffee, each client rotates through a series of mock interview sessions with different volunteer interviewers. Each interviewer is given a list of different questions that might, for example, ask the interviewee to explain their background and interests or to describe their greatest strengths and weaknesses or to explain why a company should hire them. Each session usually lasts 30 minutes with an extra 15 minutes at the end for the interviewer to offer feedback.

 

Tymeka Whiteside gives her inspirational advice to SCREAM at a Dress for Success event

Afterward, volunteers and clients enjoy lunch together and hear an inspirational speaker.  For the past two years, NetApp Knowledgebase Management Project Manager and part-time life coach Tymeka Whiteside has been the speaker, sharing some of her own humorous and homegrown recipes for career success.  Whiteside usually begins her talk by saying that she “SCREAMS” each morning before heading to work.  SCREAM is Whiteside’s acronym for “Strategically Creating Routines that Empower and Motivate,” an example of which might be to set up networking opportunities.

 

“I often caution everyone to not belittle themselves or dismiss their accomplishments based upon someone else’s definition of “success,” she says.  “I challenge everyone in the room to feed their self-worth and value by reaffirming themselves and reflecting upon those things that have driven them to their own success. I tell them, ‘Wear confidence like your favorite pair of shoes!’”

 

Dress for Success staff have noted the warmth and involvement of NetApp volunteers throughout each of these events.

 

“NetApp is one of our most engaged partners and provides one of the most informative and well-rounded experiences for these women,” says Risley. “No other company does three rounds of rigorous interviews for us in a morning, and we bring in anywhere between 15 and 20 women each time.  During the initial short networking period, I’ve noticed NetApp employees always introduce themselves to the individual women and welcome them, and that really helps calm their fears.”

Dispelling stereotypes

One thing mock interviewers are clear about is that the woman nervously facing them across the table is a unique person, deserving of respect and empathy. A typical Dress for Success client is in her 40s or 50s and living in poverty.  She may be out of work for a number of reasons—raising children, fighting addiction, escaping a domestic violence situation or even working for a company for a long time before being laid off.  She is usually referred to Dress for Success by other NGOs in the area, such as educational institutions, homeless and domestic violence shelters, re-entry programs for the formerly incarcerated or rehab programs. By the time she walks into Dress for Success, she has overcome these other barriers to finding employment and is ready to search for a job.

 

“When I first signed up to be a mock interviewer, I expected to be speaking with low income women with very little education,” says Regina Evans, an engineering program manager in Partner and Customer Engineering Support. “I had these preconceived notions of the type of people that I would actually interface with, and I was pleasantly surprised because many of the people that I had the opportunity to interview were very articulate and had very good resumes; there wasn’t a lot to be changed.”

 

Secure CSR Project Manager Jeannette Boyd discovered that one of her interviewees, “Susan,” had a Master’s degree. Curious, she asked what brought her to Dress for Success. Susan told her she had such a serious medical problem that she had to sell her home to pay medical bills. She subsequently lost her job and had to start over from scratch. Approaching 50 and putting a period of heavy drug and alcohol abuse behind her, she made it clear that she was desperately trying to get back on track.

 

“That resonated with me,” says Boyd. “This could happen to any one of us.”

 

“Engaging with these volunteers one-to-one is extremely empowering for our clients, and we get the same kind of feedback from the employees about how much they enjoyed meeting them,” says Risley. “It dispels a lot of myths about who these women are and who we serve. When they meet our clients, they discover they could be their mothers, sisters or neighbors.”

Coaching confidence

Customer Support Delivery Manager and former social worker Julia McClung became a mock interviewer because she has always enjoyed building the confidence of others.

 

“I enjoy helping people become confident in their strengths,” she says. “Sometimes, we don’t really know how to articulate some of the strengths and talents we have. Programs like this can really help people identify what those skills are and help them present those in interview situations.”

 

One client McClung interviewed had joined the military as a young adult and remained there into her late 50s. An African American, “Mary” described to McClung how she had to develop what McClung saw as “incredible strength and power,” in order to succeed in the military environment, with its constantly shifting politics and changing times. However, when McClung asked the question, “Why should I hire you?” Mary struggled, finally responding that she should be hired because she knew certain programs and some accounting.

 

“You are a powerful woman who has overcome extreme adversity,” Mc©lung observed. “You don’t bring just knowledge about a software package; what you also bring is strength and flexibility, life experience and leadership. That’s who you are, and that’s why a company should hire you. You need to share your story.”

Observation, candor and compassion

What does it take to be a good mock interviewer?

 

“They absolutely have to be observant,” says Whiteside, who co-manages the mock interview events at NetApp with Intern and UGH Program Manager Justin Tomlin. “Body language shows areas where they are really confident and other areas where you can tell that there are a few challenges.”

 

Boyd believes a good mock interviewer needs to note and address appearance dos and don’ts, as well.  For example, might the client be selling herself short because her lipstick is too red or the perfume overpowering? Dress for Success Triangle has also invited Boyd to the Wake and Durham County Public Schools to give guidance to large groups of students who are going directly to work after high school graduation.  There, she conducts mock interview “skits,” quizzes the students on good interview attire and tests their handshakes before and after the talk—as well as covering what kind of conversation to expect in an interview and how to express themselves.

 

Most importantly, Whiteside believes honesty and compassion are key to giving good feedback because Dress for Success clients come from all walks of life and all types of backgrounds.

A rich experience for volunteers

Julia McClung has learned how to “listen differently” by conducting mock interviews.

Since the company’s relationship with Dress for Success began, NetApp RTP volunteers have conducted about 200 mock interviews. As for NetApp’s volunteers, they say that through mock interviews, they are learning to bring compassion and much more into their own interviewing styles—an important skill for NetApp managers.

 

“As managers we need to be able to talk to people in a respectful way—in a way that we can actually hear one another,” says Evans. “If someone I am interviewing is nervous, I should be able to assist that person by calming them down so that they can think more clearly through the process and feel comfortable with talking to me. Dialogue is a good tool for a manager.”

 

McClung agrees that the experience has changed how she will interview prospective NetApp employees in the future.  “I found I was asking questions of Dress for Success clients in a different way that helped them show themselves in the best light,” she says. “I was more open-minded and because I was thinking about it in a more academic way, I listened to the answers differently. I engaged at a different level and this has made me a better interviewer as part of my own role.”

Betsey Flood

Betsey Flood’s specialties are strategies, programs and content that enhance company culture. An MBA with a wide-ranging background including consumer and business advertising and both executive and employee communications, she helps companies create and manage programs that boost employee understanding, engagement and sentiment. An author of hundreds of blogs and online articles about all things culture, she is currently working on recognition, philanthropy and communications projects with NetApp, Inc.